Italian politics

Why Italy will not be the same with autonomy for Lombardy and Veneto

Italians suddenly crave for autonomy. An Italy of autonomous regions still needs to strengthen the central government.

[Note: I started to write this on Monday. I only finished it on Wednesday.] This is the day after. Almost 40% of voters participated in the referendum in Lombardy, and almost 60% participated in Veneto. Numbers are not final, also because votes from abroad have to be taken into account. In any case, there was overwhelming support for more autonomy in Lombardy (95%), Veneto (98%), and Belluno (98%). Typically, non-binding, non-consequential referendums do have low turnout and strong support, but if I add up these numbers correctly, more than 50% of voters in Veneto asked for more autonomy. That is a clear outcome by any standard. But as everything was so super fluffy, it’s very unclear how to move on from here.

Some reflections

This whole referendum is an outcome of a movement for the independence of Padania. Padania has never been a historic country or ethnicity. It’s similar to the name the Romans gave to their province that 2000 years ago covered much of the same area that is now covered by Piemonte, Lombardy, and Veneto. One of the ideological fathers of Padania said these days that autonomy is good, but that it also is not good (from his perspective), because it blocks the path to independence. And, sure, that is certainly the case in a situation where no ethnic identity feeds this independence movement. After all, this is still about the money.

The morning after, Italy’s agricultural minister insisted that any talks on autonomy would not cover taxation. I guess he implies that Lombardy and Veneto should not have autonomous authority to define taxes, but he wants to make it sound for now like they should not also keep more of their taxes. The regional governor of Veneto, however, already claimed that what they want to achieve is to keep 90% of their tax income, just like the South Tyrolians do.

Social Democrats are now in a bit of a difficult situation. First, they lost their own referendum last Fall, but their opponents won theirs. Second, the regions are standing up against a government led by the Social Democrats. But, third, the overwhelming “Yes” vote makes clear that also voters of the Social Democrats in Lombardy and Veneto support more autonomy. Which, fourth, just points at the conflicts within the party, where some (like the mayor of Bergamo) openly supported the referendum, others (like the mayor of Milan) stood tellingly silent by the side, and others rejected it. National elections are coming up, though, and political opponents will use the upcoming negotiations (or any delay in them) to campaign against the Social Democrats. They got a bit caught out on the wrong side of the table.

The Lega Nord might now re-brand themselves as just “La Lega” (the League), ultimately dropping all connotations of being a party of North-Italians for North-Italians (which they still are) in an attempt to lure voters from the South (to take steps that ultimately benefit the North). Just last week, they had entered an agreement with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia which stated that the strongest party of the camp will nominate the prime minister, should they get the majority together. Lega Nord is already ahead in the polls. And likely now will be for some time longer if they manage to use the momentum. More problems for the Social Democrats (and Italy’s moderate political voices).

Just, it’s not all that easy. Who really won the referendum for Lega Nord? And who should move on to lead them?

For the time being, these right-wing populists celebrate this as a victory. Well, it is. An easy one. With huge potential to backfire. Italians are living in a central state, but they have strong regional identities, and with autonomy being that undefined, everybody can agree with the concept in some way. It’s like offering a licorice candy to children. You ask who wants a candy and everybody gets excited. You show them it’s a licorice candy and most but few will shake their head and turn away, disappointed.

Why this actually is a bigger thing now

In related news, referendums are now likely also for Liguria, Tuscany, and Puglia. Yesterday they were blamed as expensive and useless, but the outcome at this moment looks impressive, and those who still question it (and who criticize the electronic voting in Lombardy, which had run into technical problems) are in a weak position. There are various movements to hold a referendum also in Piemonte. One for autonomy from the central government. And one in which the two provinces of Piemonte at the border with Lombardy try to get support for a switch of regions. And in South Tyrol, hopes circulate to negotiate for even more autonomy.

So, let’s count. Autonomy already is a thing in South Tyrol, Aosta, Friuli, Sardegna, and Sicily. Five of 18. Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, and Veneto are now set to join. Three of 18. Piemonte, Liguria, Tuscany, and Puglia are convinced to want to follow. Four of 18. That’s a total of twelve regions of Italy that within a reasonable time frame could end up with some form of autonomy. Furthermore, of those (wealthy) regions that give more money to the central state than they receive, only Umbria and Marche have no strong visible push towards autonomy. Yet. Who knows where the domino effect ends? Isolated voices appeared today even in Lazio, which is the region surrounding Rome. There is no more Italian place in Italy than Lazio.

The inner solidarity of people within a state is a fundamental reason as to why states and nations and even supranational institutions like the EU exist. Other than to give more power to the government. Which, however, in a democracy should represent the interests of the people. People organize themselves in larger entities in order to be better off. Think about this whole Brexit/Czexit/Frexit debate. And it might well be that within a few months, we see that this inner solidarity has completely blown up in Italy. Or: we might just have on paper that it has blown up years ago.

Last fall, the Social Democrats failed in their attempt to overhaul the Italian constitution. Not even 12 months later, Italians should understand what really should be on the table now. Autonomy for Veneto and Lombardy and then for Liguria and Puglia and Tuscany and Piemonte… that’s not it. These are just partial issues. Italians need to discuss their general idea of an Italian state. A central state it cannot be anymore. A collection of only autonomous regions it is not allowed to be. A true federal state it has to become. But that still needs to include some ideas on how to maintain that inner solidarity. Without inner solidarity, the European Union would get smaller, because its inner opponents leave, but it would also get capable of acting and deciding again, because its inner opponents leave. That’s not the feat of a nation state. A nation state is not meant to shrink or grow. Without inner solidarity, it will continue to be. In a vegetative state.

The following paragraph is quoted from a German newspaper. The article was originally published in 1997.

Bossi moves along the boundaries of legality, for instance with the “referendum” on the independence of Padania, which the central government only tolerates because it doesn’t want to create martyrs. […] Could decentralization and federalism cure the Italian pain? Propositions of the commission are radical: They range all the way to regional constitutions, fiscal and administrative autonomy, and want to leave only defense, foreign affairs, and monetary politics (which anyways will be transferred to the European Union soon) with the central government. And indeed no other European country besides Germany is historically so predetermined for federalism. […] Nonetheless it’s doubtful if federalism can succeed, and this will eventually be decided over money issues. Also a federal Italy cannot leave the Southern regions to itself.

The verdict: Italy is made for federalism, but it’s not ready for it. Moving on to 2017.

Moving on towards a living Italy?

In one word: Difficult.

As a conclusion, federalism seems to reflect all the contradictions that define the
current state of Italian society. A reform depicted as necessary, positive and
desired by the people has been confronted with an unachieved institutional
pattern, with difficulties of implementation and political instrumentalization
while it has created uncertain legal conditions and divided public opinion. (Roux, 2008)

Italy’s quasi-federalist system that gave raise to the regions is just twenty years old. At the time, it was greeted with hope and skepticism alike. It’s a particular process, as Italy moves from a centralized state back to its more decentralized historical origins. It cannot anymore be the model for the future of Italy. Comprehensive reforms are tough, notably for someone on the losing side will oppose and block it.

And in all likelihood, it’s here where Italy’s future really needs reform. Also a federal state needs strong and solid structures at the central government. Else it’s just a collection of contradicting interests, and all lose together. The parliamentary reform from last fall got a lot of rightful criticism. It’s a big drama that it was not brought back to the table. Back then, it was contested by Renzi’s opponents with clear and rather convincing political arguments. Statements went like: We agree that constitutional reform is necessary, but it cannot be this one, because of a number of reasons. That senators (representing regions) would not face direct election, for instance. Ironically, a major complaint of this was that instead they’d be elected by the regions, which were depicted as the most corrupt layer of Italian administration at the time.

Regions. Those that now are going to get more autonomy.

Fine, then give them a constitutional reform they could not reject. They were all loud and opinionated on how they imagined a constitutional reform. It should have been a thing.

I’m not living long enough in Italy to perfectly understand all their problems and feelings. Hence, I abstain from making ill-informed suggestions on how federalism itself should be structured. So far, I take away from this referendum thing that regions will not benefit from more powers if they turn their back to the central state. That’s enough of a conclusion. South Tyrol is and will continue to be a special case. Not least for the prime goal of all autonomy talks, getting hold of the money, is constitutionally not that easy for other regions, be they autonomous or not.

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